A month ago, they looked like a lost tribe of Klansmen who wandered into New York. Today, the so-called “hippies” of the Occupy Wall Street movement have metaphorically hung out a sign proclaiming: “All races welcome.”
People of color and immigrants are now coming to Zuccotti Park in greater numbers, including a South Asian who trades on Wall Street and whispered conspiratorially to this reporter: “Actually, I’m kinda on the other side.”
One of them was Peter Lew, who used to have a thriving home improvement business. When the “out of control” economy ground to a stop, so did his main source of income.
Lew now counts himself among the proverbial 99 percent which the rapidly growing OWS movement says are left out by unjust economic policies that have resulted in joblessness, defaulting mortgages and the decimation of small entrepreneurial businesses.
“I come here when I can,” said Lew, a Brooklyn artist-teacher. “This is my third day.”
He’s one of many. In a video, the group “South Asians for Justice” said they were at Zuccotti Park because “there’s a lot of things going on in this country we’re fed up with.”
“I’m inspired seeing all these young people going out there, sleeping there…people who have no connection to movements or activism and that are just coming,” said Sonny, one of the leaders of South Asians for Justice.
A community from Chinatown has organized a “field trip” to Zuccotti Park this Saturday. The invite said it would make for an “educational and interesting” discussion for Chinese students.
It took a while for people of color and immigrant communities to get on board the Occupy Wall Street bandwagon, even though immigrants are well represented among those who lost their homes as a consequence of massive layoffs and jobs cuts across the nation. In one of the first meetings of OWS, some people of color felt they were being excluded, their voices drowned out in brainstorming sessions over tactics and structure. It wasn’t a good start for a movement that claimed to speak for the 99 percent of people ignored by the powers- that-be in government and on Wall Street.
In an October 12 meeting at Washington Square Park, certain groups felt they were being “marginalized.” An entry in the People of Color OWS website read:
“Arrived there and surprised to see other working groups. Not asked to speak. Thousands were there. Felt excluded and marginalized. During open forum made announcement about group and was interrupted. Question: How do we make sure our voices are no longer marginalized.”
The People of Color OWS group wrote that in a climate of austerity, it is the “black and brown folks” who are the first to lose their jobs, and whose children’s schools are the first to lose funding.
While OWS organizers acknowledged how the movement may have unintentionally left out immigrant communities at first, things have changed considerably, said OWS press coordinator Kanene Holder. There is now a People of Color Caucus within OWS, she said. And the third edition of the Occupy Wall Street Journal is available in Spanish.
“Our goal is to make sure they are involved,” Holder said. “This is a progressive movement dedicated to allowing all voices to be heard, including those from minority populations.”
She recalled how the oversight was noticed by two white men who complained there were certain groups “not given priority speaking up during general assemblies.” Through outreach, Holder maintains organizers are addressing the concerns that OWS “lacked diversity.”
“We’re aware of the issues,” she said.
“There was definitely a general under-representation of immigrants and people of color with the initiators of OWS,” recalled Bernadette Ellorin of the grassroots organization Bayan USA. “This is why an OWS People-of-Color Caucus was initiated, which we are involved in.” The group was created October 1, nearly two weeks since OWS came together loosely on September 17.
Holder explained why the concerns of people of color is a particular focus of OWS. “People of color usually languish in the shadows of liberty and justice and hence our issues are sometimes extremely urgent or dire, including deportation, warrantless searches due to the Patriot Act or stopping and frisking, as well as the other issues,” she said.
Immigrants play a “crucial role” in elevating the OWS discourse to the international context, Ellorin added, especially since it is the global economic crisis that drives joblessness, poverty, and forced migration all over the world.
“We represent the people that are left out of the economy and without representation in government,” said OWS spokesman Jason Ahmadi. “We do not deny anybody.”